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The Red Sox gambled on Alex Cora after the Astros scandal, and they're winning big

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When MLB’s report on the Houston Astros sign-stealing scheme dropped in January 2020, the Boston Red Sox immediately had a problem on their hands. Manager Alex Cora — who had been the bench coach in Houston 2017 — was implicated as the mastermind of the plot to relay signs decoded from a hidden video feed via trash can banging.

The only reason he wasn’t immediately suspended and fired alongside Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch was his role with the new team … which MLB was still investigating over different sign-stealing accusations. Having just turned over the front office and hired Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox announced a parting of ways with Cora soon after the report.

The temperature of the scandal at the time, plus the fact that Bloom was now in charge in Boston, pointed to that being the end of Cora as Red Sox manager, one season removed from a 108-win, World Series-winning tour de force. But in retrospect, there were signs the door had not slammed behind him.

Even amid the sudden turmoil, the front office expressed its respect for Cora, and Boston Globe reporting indicated this was the rare instance of an actual mutual parting. More striking, though, was the reaction from players. While an admittedly compromised group in Houston offered radio silence about their canned skipper, the Red Sox unabashedly clamored for the return of the manager whose dubious deeds had just been exposed in full.

A seemingly heartbroken Xander Bogaerts was asked what he wanted to see in the next Red Sox manager and simply responded that he wanted someone like Cora.

Red Sox invite scrutiny by welcoming Cora back

Ten months and 60 miserable baseball games later, Bogaerts got his wish. The Red Sox rehired Cora after his one-season suspension was up, and the team that finished dead last in 2020 (yes, even behind the Orioles) jumped out to a hot start to put themselves in the division race, then held on to make the wild-card game. 

The past two weeks have seen Cora pick up where he left off in October 2018 — on one of the most untouchable manager hot streaks in playoff history. It would be hard to define what a manager hot streak even is if Cora weren’t demonstrating so clearly. His pinch-hitting decisions are Steph Curry shots in rhythm. His pitching moves are Patrick Mahomes scramble drills. Whether it’s sending Eduardo Nunez to the plate for reasons unknown (and being rewarded with a huge home run) or deciding unremarkable starter Nick Pivetta is the cure for a shaky bullpen (and being completely correct), Cora has come up aces on postseason decisions small, large, conventional and wacky.

He’s now running a historic 15-4 record in the playoffs, and the Red Sox are back in the ALCS — set to clash with the 2021 version of the Astros and dredge up the history that made it seem so unlikely, at one point, that Cora would be involved in such a series.

There are a couple ways to approach his instant return to success — and the implicated Astros’ players continued success, for that matter.

One strain of logic could lead you to believe that the increased scrutiny and public scorn makes Cora and his former Astros players the least likely candidates to cross a line. This is an alternate version of the theory that led food safety experts to say Chipotle was the possibly the safest place to eat in the months after its highly publicized E. coli outbreak.

When MLB cracked down on pitchers’ use of sticky substances in June, one Boston writer posited just that: Cora’s pitchers needed to be on higher alert because of their manager’s already sullied reputation. And while remaining mum on details, Cora has mostly said the right things in expressing remorse and reckoning with his brazen violations of the game’s ethics.

On the other hand, highly motivated people who have completely disregarded the integrity of the game before will deservedly inspire leeriness going forward. Whether you think the consequences Cora suffered constituted a just punishment or a severe enough deterrent — one season without a job, which turned out to be abbreviated, sandwiched between salaries in the high six figures — can certainly affect your outlook on his likelihood for recidivism. But that is an issue to take up with Rob Manfred; he set the punishment at one season. After that, Cora was free to return and the Red Sox were free to hire their top choice.

The one permanent consequence is that the threshold for casting aspersions toward any and all things Astros-related is very low — as the White Sox reminded us this week.

So that heightened skepticism lingers over the dugout as Cora racks up October wins once again, the worrisome underbelly of Boston's big winning bet. Be it a leap of faith or a cave to the ruthless pursuit of winning, reinvesting faith in Cora is paying major dividends.

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 07: Manager Alex Cora #13 of the Boston Red Sox looks on during batting practice prior to Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on October 07, 2021 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Alex Cora is 15-4 in playoff games as a manager, having found success on both sides of a one-year suspension for his role in the Astros sign-stealing scheme. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What is behind Cora's October success?

If forced to define Cora’s playoff magic through tactics he commits to the box score, it would be role flexibility. Pitchers used to starting come out of the bullpen. Hitters with little cache get the nod in key moments.

It isn’t and wasn’t groundbreaking — teams have been deploying starters out of the bullpen for years, or using strong relievers in higher leverage spots, etc. — but Cora’s 2018 usage of his starters as relief aces may have been the most extreme example to date, only to be matched by the 2019 Washington Nationals.

Other Cora success stories are about moves he doesn’t make, though. He kept Kiké Hernández, who came to Boston aiming to escape his pigeonholed role as a platooned utilityman, in center field and in the leadoff spot relentlessly despite numerous moments when he could have demoted him. Whether it was the best idea for winning regular season games is hard to say, and whether it truly affected Hernández’s psyche is even more difficult to gauge. What’s for sure is that he hit .450 and drove in six crucial runs to doom the Rays.

That’s what stands out: The buy-in Cora seems to earn from his players, the way they revel in being deployed in positions that, conventionally speaking, would be deemed uncomfortable.

The clubhouse enthusiasm that manifested as grief when Cora departed under the cloud of the scandal is now showing up in almost unbelievably gushing postgame quotes.

After closing out the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS, Red Sox reliever Garrett Whitlock went for a cliche to explain Cora’s influence: “He’s a guy you’d run through a wall for.” But then he decided that no, the player-speak that does the trick 99 percent of the time wouldn’t suffice.

“If he told me to run through that wall, I’d believe that he had something there to make sure it would fall for me,” Whitlock told reporters.

It echoed the 2018 words of Nathan Eovaldi. Their current ace was more a midlevel starter on that 108-win squad, but turned into a galvanizing hero in the 18-inning World Series Game 3, firing a bullpen-saving six innings in relief even as he eventually took the loss.

“Everything he did worked,” Eovaldi told ESPN after the Red Sox won it all. “He just has a way of making you believe.”

At least as far as we know, these belief-boosting strategies are above board. And lifting Cora up to the sport’s brightest lights once again.

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